Bankei—Noble Prince of the Unborn


No series would be comprehensive here without a study of Bankei Yōtaku (1622-93). Bankei’s Zen was eloquent in its simplicity. He was forever the quintessential iconoclast, riding against all the excessive material formalism that infested the zen of his time, against all that impinged upon the direct clarity of the Unborn. His elementary cry was to, “Get Unborn!” In effect, to ditch all unnecessary baggage that obscured the deathless, imageless and boundless face of the Unborn Buddha Mind, our Authentic and Original Nature. The following is a general outline of his spiritual path:

Early Struggles 

Bankei had an extreme dislike for towing the Confucian path, one that was being incessantly thrust upon him by his elder brother. It all came to a head for him one day when he had had enough; he stated to himself, “What’s the use of clinging to a life like this?” He then decided to commit suicide by swallowing some poisonous spiders—but miraculously remained unharmed.  In the midst of having to study the Confucian classics, one line in particular preoccupied him: “The way of great learning consists in clarifying Bright Virtue”. For Bankei, endeavoring to discern what constituted “Bright Virtue” became his rallying cry for some time to come. Neither Confucian nor Buddhist scholars had an answer to his avid query. Hence, the profound spiritual-quest had begun. He would spend endless hours in solitude in self-made hermitages; he had some exposure to the esoteric schools of Buddhism like Shintoism, and later Shin Buddhism as well, all to no avail. His first real introduction to Zen was through the eminent Rinzai Zen Priest, Umpō, who advised him that fully realizing what was meant by Bright Virtue could only come about by practicing zazen. For many years Bankei would experience the rigorous torment of sitting hour, after hour, after hour in zazen meditation. All that this produced was an immense toll on his health. He was wasting away, just skin and bones while developing excruciating ulcers on his buttocks. Eventually, he was succumbing to tuberculosis. One day while spitting-up huge globules of blood, one stuck to the wall and slid-down like a huge soapberry; for Bankei this was a moment of experiencing his first satori, “Suddenly, just at that moment, I realized what it was that had escaped me until now: All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn!”  This first encounter with his own “birthless-nature” was a profound breakthrough. His health was restored. He was also able to convey this deep self-realization to his mother, whom he loved more than anything else in the world. Later, Umpō advised Bankei, who was roughly at age 29, to go and see an eminent Ch’an master (Dōsha Chōgen) from China in order to have his enlightenment confirmed.  Dōsha confirmed that Bankei had initial satori, but that his realization was not yet complete. In 1652, when he was 30, Bankei was meditating along with Dōsha’s congregation and he suddenly experienced irreversible enlightenment (anuttara-samyak-sambodhi). Shortly thereafter, Dōsha was about to bestow upon him the “traditional seal of recognition” (inka-shōmei), but Bankei just tore it up and walked away. He didn’t need any material-form of approval recognizing what the Unborn Alone had bestowed upon him. Bankei eventually moved on to spend time in hermitage again to savor his newfound Noble self-Realization; indeed, few could relate to his unique intuitive spiritual aptitude. While in solitude, Bankei wrote some wonderful poem-songs in honor of the Unborn; among these was his monumental, 50-verse Song of the Original Mind.

The Teaching Years 

Bankei began to be recognized as an erudite spiritual master and many sought him out and encouraged him to expound his Buddhadharma of the Unborn to others at large. Emerging from solitude he spent the remainder of his life teaching the penetrating ways of the Unborn to multitudes of people, both clergy, monks and laity alike. He is also known as favoring women disciples; in fact his own mother became a nun and lived in close proximity to his monastery. Later, a most accomplished adept also became a Buddhist nun named Den Sutejo (religious name, Teikan). Teikan became a fervent disciple of Bankei, keeping diligent records of his teachings in her diary (which proved to be an invaluable resource depicting what it was like being with Bankei during these later years).  Shortly before his death, Bankei composed a death verse which read, ‘I’ve lived for seventy-two years. I’ve been teaching people for forty-five. What I’ve been telling you and others every day during that time is all my death verse. I’m not going to make another one now, before I die, just because everyone else does it.’ “After speaking those words, he passed away. He was in a seated position according to one account, lying on his right side, like the Buddha, according to another.” (Norman Waddell, The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei 1622-1693, North Point Press)

My main resources for this series is Waddell’s version acknowledged above, as well as Peter Haskel’s, Bankei Zen, Translations from the Record of Bankei, Grove Press. Haskel pin-points Bankei’s immense relevance via the following:

“What was it that made Bankei’s teaching of the Unborn so popular in his time? Above all, perhaps, was the fact that the basics of Bankei’s Zen were clear and relatively simple. You didn’t have to be learned, live in a monastery or even necessarily consider yourself a Buddhist to practice them effectively. Nor did you have to engage in long and arduous discipline. True, Bankei himself had undergone terrible hardships before he realized the Unborn; but only, as he constantly reminded his listeners, because he never met a teacher able to tell him what he had to know. In fact, one could readily attain the Unborn in the comfort of one’s own home. It wasn’t necessary, or even advisable, Bankei insisted, to follow his own example.

Bankei’s entire teaching can be reduced to the single admonition “Abide in the Unborn!” This was Bankei’s constant refrain. The term “Unborn” itself is a common one in classical Buddhism, where it generally signifies that which is intrinsic, original, uncreated. Bankei, however,was the first to use this term as the crux of his teaching. Rather than obtaining or practicing the Unborn, he says, one should simply abide in it, because the Unborn is not a state that has to be created, but is already there, perfect and complete, the mind just as it is. There isn’t any special method for realizing the Unborn other than to be yourself, to be totally natural and spontaneous in everything you do.” (ibid,

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3 Responses to Bankei—Noble Prince of the Unborn

  1. J says:

    Thank you for this marvellous introduction to Bankei, whose teachings I were unacquainted with. I am reminded much of Dzogchen, which is similar in its direct and open approach to the Unborn. Actually I would enjoy to see you take on some Dsogchen material (perhaps Longchenpa?) as illuminated by your experience. Something to consider for one of your future series? Guenther’s translation and analysis of what is according to him the only surviving writings of the historical Padmasambhava might also be of interest to this blog. I have the PDF if you cannot find it elsewhere.

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